Video: Neuroplasticity and the FASD-Affected Brain

This video describes brain plasticity and development in relation to FASD, as well as implications for interventions.

About this video

Production Date: January 23, 2011
Length: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Presenter: Dr. Bryan Kolb
Download slide notes for this video (PDF, 27 pages)

Dr. Kolb is a professor in the Department of Neuroscience, University of Lethbridge. His recent work has focused on the development of the prefrontal cortex and how neurons of the cerebral cortex change in response to various developmental factors, and how these changes are related to behaviour.

Dr. Kolb is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a Killam Research Fellow of the Canada Council for the Arts. He’s currently a member of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in the Experience-Based Brain Development Program.


This video will help you understand:

  • neuroplasticity in the human brain
  • how neuroplasticity could affect brains damaged by prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE)
  • possible implications for cognitive and behavioural interventions with those affected by PAE


  1. Principles of brain plasticity (2:16)
  2. Principles of brain development (41:17)
  3. FASD and brain plasticity (1:00:23)
  4. Implications for interventions (1:05:10)

Principles of brain plasticity

‘Once considered a static organ, we now understand the brain as a dynamic organ that undergoes both acute and chronic changes.’ – Dr. Kolb

Plasticity can be seen at many levels of analysis.

Principles controlling the process of brain changes:

  • behavior
  • brain mapping: a representation of external world activities
  • physiology
  • neuronal morphology
  • genetics and epigenetics
  • proteins and other molecules

The more complex the cell, the more complex their connections and engagements with other cells. Brain changes are reflected in behavioral change. Learning, memory, addiction, maturation, aging and recovery are examples of changing brain processes.

The cortex is altered by a wide range of events including:

  • sensory and motor experiences: experience alters the brain activity, expression of genes, brain chemistry and ultimately behavior
  • learning: learning can occur only if the brain changes
  • gonadal hormones: relative volume of cortical regions in female and male brains is different, producing different behavior
  • psychoactive drugs: all psychoactive drugs leave a footprint on the brain and alter the frontal lobe drugs including:
    • nicotine
    • caffeine
    • cocaine
    • amphetamines
    • methylphenidate
    • antidepressants
    • valium
    • antipsychotics
    • morphine
  • natural rewards: ego, sex, play
    • play alters frontal lobe development; absence of play results in abnormal development
  • diet: enhanced vitamins and mineral enhances plasticity and behavior
  • stress: affects specific areas of the brain: hippocampus, medial pre-frontal cortex, orbital pre-frontal cortex

Changes are age-specific and can occur in response to both pre and postnatal experiences. This includes stimulants, alcohol, prescription drugs, tactile stimulation and parent-infant interaction and bonding.

Principles of brain development

The brain is sculpted by all pre-and post-natal experiences, especially in the first few years of life. Brain cells develop connections over the first 2 years, and are ‘sculpted’ or trimmed for 20+ years.

Male and female brains develop and mature at different rates. The cerebral cortex maturation proceeds from back to front, with the temporal lobe development peaking at 16 years. The pre-frontal cortex matures well into the 20's.

As behaviors emerge and change, we can infer what must be happening in the nervous system. Behavioral disorders are related to abnormalities in brain development.

FASD and brain plasticity

Brains affected by FASD have reduced plasticity. Fewer immature neuronal spines means less room for maturation, or change, in neurons.

Reduced neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus. Reduced survival rate of cells. New cell generation necessary for memory.

Reduced NMDA receptors, which are the key to plasticity.

Major obstacles in brains affected by FASD:

  • abnormal brain development, especially in the frontal and temporal regions
  • impaired plasticity
  • poor nutrition
  • high stress

Implications for interventions

The following can help to restore/regenerate brain plasticity:

  • early intervention with tactile stimulation
  • exercise to increase hippocampal neurogenesis
  • will not improve the survival rate of the cells, but may increase generation of new cells
  • environmental enrichment
  • enhanced diet

The challenge is to develop:

  • rehabilitation strategies that will enhance plasticity
  • novel treatments that can work around the problems with plasticity
Modified: 2015-09-09
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